Extending the realities of digital learning

In recent years, L&D’s interest in extended reality technology has peaked, as affordability and creativity has offered promising new developments in the learning sphere. But what is it and how is it changing the world of digital learning?

What is Extended Reality?

In short, extended reality or XR is an umbrella term to describe alternate reality experiences like virtual, augmented and mixed reality. It uses technology to merge the physical and virtual world. So, what’s the difference between virtual, augmented and mixed reality?

Virtual reality (VR): VR is used to describe a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which is presented as a truly immersive experience, where the user feels as though they are really there.

Augmented reality (AR): AR on the other hand is defined as an interactive experience of a real-world environment, where the objects that reside in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated information.

Mixed reality (MR): MR is the merging of the real world with a virtual environment to produce a situation where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time.

Benefits of XR

Well-planned use of XR technology can significantly improve the skills and retention rates of your workforce. Here are some of the main benefits of incorporating XR into your digital learning initiatives:

High engagement and knowledge retention

Using XR for training makes the learning experience more enjoyable and engaging for learners, as the training session almost resembles playing a game. Plus, immersive experiences cause strong emotional reactions in learners, which facilitates long-term retention of information.

We know that humans learn most through social learning, that is observing others’ behaviour, attitudes and outcomes of those behaviours (or actions). The use of UX in learning facilitates this, by encouraging learner to ‘learn by doing’.  For example, a 2017 experiment by Google’s Daydreams lab found that learners who received barista training with the help of VR learned faster and better than those who were merely shown video tutorials.

Remote learning and collaboration

With the help of XR technology, a trainer can transport into the same room as its learners and guide them through immersive experiences. In turn, this gives learners the opportunity to collaborate remotely. For example, healthcare professionals from the UK, India and US all connected and consulted in real-time using MR headsets during a colectomy operation that was happening in the UK. Mind-blowing, right?


XR technology allows businesses to create safe environments that enables learners to learn from their mistakes without any risks – for example, when taking training on performing a surgery or learning how to fly a plane. It allows you to place your learners in a situation where they can try out their own ideas and reach their own conclusions. Besides, XR technology also helps to save money on training equipment and environments. For example, it’s much cheaper to train learners on repairing space shuttle engines using virtual experiences rather than having them practice on real ones.

XR in digital learning

To give you an idea of how XR is already taking the digital learning sphere by storm, here are some examples of how it is being used in different industries:


One of the main features of XR is that it can be used in the training of future healthcare professionals. CAE Healthcare collaborated with Microsoft HoloLens to build an ultrasound training simulator (VimedixAR). VimedixAR delivers simulation-based training experience, allowing learners to interact and move freely within a clinical training environment that is augmented with holograms. Learners can elevate the VimedixAR hologram above the body to gain an understanding of human anatomy and how its structures are integrated. The hologram of the heart, for example, can be isolated and enlarged, rotated, and turned as it floats at eye level. If a learner is struggling to understand a concept, they can walk around the hologram to gain a different perspective.


From using AR in order to install electrical wiring on an aircraft to collaborating with Iowa State University to build a programme that allows learners to assemble wing parts virtually, Boeing has been at the forefront of incorporating XR into the aviation industry.

It’s an expensive and difficult proposition to pull an airplane’s engine out in order to train learners. So, Western Michigan University collaborated with Microsoft to bring an aircraft engine to life using MR. With this technology, students in WMU’s College of Aviation can be immersed, for instance, inside jet turbofan engines or interact with 3D cockpits to learn and practise real-world aviation scenarios and procedures.


US retail giant Walmart has implemented XR technology into its employee training programme to provide a more involved experience that mimics a real-world store.

Utilising 360-degree video, learners at the Walmart Academy training programme are transported into a real store and exposed to all the environmental factors that they would experience in real life. Walmart plans to use VR to train associates in three main areas: new technology, soft skills like empathy and customer service and compliance.

These are just a few examples of how XR is re-defining how we offer learning. Immersive learning is still emerging, but it’s clear that given the broad range of its applications, XR technology will be critical in digital learning in the future.